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WSU Works To Become More Welcoming To Native Students On Its Spokane Campus

Cori Kogan/WSU College of Medicine

Washington State University is working to get more Native American students to consider careers as medical doctors. A very small percentage of the doctors in the U.S. are Native and the pipeline is generally empty. WSU’s College of Medicine says, out of nearly 22,000 medical students in the U.S., 44 are Native.

One of them is Grace McPhail. She’s a first-year WSU medical student from Long Beach, Washington.

“I grew up on a cranberry farm with my parents. My grandparents are cranberry farmers as well," McPhail said.

She went to California for college, Santa Clara University, and she graduated with a bachelor of science in public health.

“I was sort of sure at that time that I wanted to do medicine, but all the nitty gritty science details didn’t always appeal to me. The social health aspect and population health really did," she said.

After McPhail graduated, she moved to San Diego and she worked for a company that makes insulin pumps for diabetics. She was a customer service representative. She soon learned that didn’t satisfy her desire to help people. So she decided to continue on to medical school. Now, there’s one important detail we haven’t mentioned: Grace McPhail didn’t learn she has Native heritage until she was in high school.

“I am a member of the Chickasaw Nation from Oklahoma, on my mom’s side," she said. "Since then it’s just spurred a change in the way I approach my history. When I was at Santa Clara, I worked with two other Native students to form the first Native student organization that the campus had ever had, which was really neat. We were a small group and we tried so hard to do so many things. They actually just put on their first powwow last year, which was the first in Santa Clara’s history.”

After college she took a couple of years off to decide her career path. She went to Mexico.

“I did an internship there in an emergency medicine setting and I was like, ‘Yes, I love this. This is something I can do for the rest of my life'," she said.

So McPhail applied for medical school and was accepted into two. One was the University of North Dakota, which has a long-established program to train Native students to become doctors. The other was WSU. Tough decision, she says. But she chose to stay closer to home, still with an eye toward learning more about how to care for Native American people.

“Native Americans experience these health outcomes at significantly higher rates. The rates of diabetes are much higher, substance use and abuse, mental health disorders, all of that," she said. "I don’t think, as a Native person, that I could just ignore that. I think that would need to be a part of the way I practice and I need to treat the population that I come from, especially with these high, high rates, and we lack those health services and we need them.”

Naomi Bender says Grace McPhail is one of three WSU medical students who are Native American. Bender is the director of Native American Health Studies at WSU Spokane.

“What our office, in particular, is trying to do is make sure that we’re reaching out with each of the students and finding out how, not just their academics are going, but how are they doing personally, how are they doing culturally. What are some ways in which our office can help them," Bender said.

"Our office has helped support a new Native American student club, of which Grace is president. We have students from each of our colleges: pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences, nursing, speech and hearing and nutrition, diet and exercise, all part of this group, to create a cohort of students who otherwise wouldn’t have one another to glean on one another in terms of that cultural piece and that familial piece in which they’re really used to having and they’ve walked away from," she said.

Bender says that support system will allow Native Americans to help each other get through rigorous academic programs, while allowing them to stay attached to their Native identity and customs.

She’s working with the College of Medicine to develop programs funded by two new grants. One pairs WSU with two other western medical schools to better prepare and recruit Native students into medical careers. The partners are Oregon’s medical school, Oregon Health and Science University and the University of California-Davis School of Medicine, along with the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board.

“We also help support Native American events with another grant that we’ll be receiving from the Empire Health Foundation this week," Bender said. "We will be able to build a Native American Student Support Center and we are just now in the process of getting that space. Our students, hopefully, start having those services beginning this fall. The services will include advising, mentoring, cultural events and meals on a weekly basis, access to Native American faculty in each of the colleges and, in particular, just that overall support that we talked about.

"This weekend we’ll be taking our students snowshoeing, getting them out in Nature and getting them back into the place where we truly feel at peace with our Earth and giving them opportunities to really express themselves and spend time together I think is important," she said.

Bender says WSU works to give students, not just Native students, opportunities to work in Native health care settings.

“We recently had a student down in Coeur d’Alene at Marimn," she said. "We work closely with those entities to help make sure that student is prepared, having a better understanding of that tribal community, how the clinic is run, and really orientate them to the system and to the patients and people they’ll serve. I think that’s important to do because, one, we want to make sure that student is set up for success and they’re walking into a whole different culture, a sovereign area, if you will, to prepare them, but also have the clinic prepare the student as well. I think when we work collaboratively like that, we find that’s successful for everyone involved.”

And now back to Grace McPhail. We put her on the spot and asked if, after she’s finished with her four years of medical school and her residency training after that, she thought about going back to Long Beach to practice.

“I actually struggle with that a bit," McPhail said. "Having been in California for the past six years, it would be an interesting thing for me to move back to Long Beach, but every time I do go back, I am just reminded of the gift of community. I mean you really cannot go to the grocery store without seeing everyone you know. Good and bad. Watching kids that I babysat graduate high school now and the same teachers that I was taught by are still teaching. I think about what an amazing gift it would be to go back and to be there. I think I would at least want to be back there part-time because I do miss it.”

And she says it’s a place where doctors are needed, Native or not, just like many rural communities in the Northwest.